This morning, I sat down upon two fallen sunflower petals, preparing to drive my 13yo son to school. Sunflowers remind me of Vincent Van Gogh and the sleep deprivation led me into a teaching moment.
I asked Oliver, what do you think the oldest living person can teach us? He said something about lifestyle, nutrition, and waited for my reply.
I said, “yes, but she also taught us to be kind because you never know what another person is going through.”
Scientists have studied Jeanne Calment’s rather unremarkable life finding that she was not fanatical about exercise, laughter, or nutrition. She was calm, enjoyed chocolate, olive oil, and port wine and never worked. She even smoked.
Perhaps the universe kept her alive to punish a lawyer? She did sign a delightfully ironic sort of reverse mortgage at the age of 90 to collect monthly rent of 2,500 Francs from a lawyer, then aged 47 years, in exchange for her apartment when she passed away. She outlived the lawyer and the family greatly overpaid as she lived until 122 years.
But the point of the blog is that one of her more resonating anecdotes relates to meeting Van Gogh in 1888:
Her international fame escalated in 1988, when the centenary of Vincent van Gogh‘s visit to Arles provided an occasion to meet reporters. She said at the time that she had met Van Gogh 100 years before, in 1888, as a thirteen-year-old girl in her father’s fabric shop, where he wanted to buy some canvas, later describing him as “dirty, badly dressed and disagreeable, very ugly, ungracious, impolite, sick” (Wikipedia)
Was Van Gogh probably all of the above? Yes. He was quite ill, a heavy smoker and drinker, may have been having arguments with Paul Gaugin. This was the year he cut off his ear and sent it to a prostitute where he and Gaugin frequented.
This all reminds me of a JD Salinger story, “A Perfect Day for Bananafish” which my son had read the night before. In it, the eldest sibling of the Glass family, Seymour, is vacationing with his semi-estranged wife at an upscale Florida beach resort. The short story tells of a man who is probably suffering from PTSD from the war who enjoys some innocent banter with a 4yo, Sybil, before going back to the hotel. Seymour believes the woman in the elevator is staring at his feet and he confronts her with disproportionate rebuke. He then goes to his hotel room where his wife is napping, and kills himself.
After dropping off my son and preparing to meet with the principal and my ex-wife about high school planning, I went for coffee and a pastry when a disheveled looking man shouted at me while I was deep in thought “hmm…you never know what people are going through,” I thought to myself, “…hmm, maybe that’s a blog…”
I couldn’t discern what he shouted at me from a table 25 feet away so I replied, “excuse me?”
He said, “I haven’t eaten in days!” to which I responded with a sort urban dweller’s automatic shrug and slightly apologetic hand gesture.
As I waited in line, I realized that I had missed the entire point of my blog’s inciting thought and decided to purchase two orange poppy muffin tops. I thought that might be better than to support the man’s possible substance abuse problem.
When I emerged, he was gone and I felt a bit sad that I couldn’t do my little good deed for the day.
Later that morning, an apparently homeless man thanked me by the freeway when I offered him the pastry and he gifted me in return with a “Thank you! God bless.”
What is the point of these ramblings? You never know what another person is going through of what incredible gifts they are bringing forth. Everyone wants connection and kindness. Perhaps Jeanne Calment, unlike Sybil in A Perfect Day for Bananafish, was impolite to Van Gogh and set him into a downward spiral. Or perhaps not. Perhaps Sybil being so lovely allowed Seymour to achieve a moment of Zen-like peace, like the eye of the hurricane or the activation from Prozac that gives people enough motivation to kill themselves?
Perhaps the man who left before I could gift him a pastry decided to turn his life around. Perhaps the man who received the pastry decided that substance abuse and homelessness was a tenable lifestyle, or perhaps he didn’t think twice.
You just never know what people are going through but you can be certain that many are probably struggling a great deal and that no one resents a kind word, a smile, or a gentle touch on the shoulder.
It reminds me of a wonderful poem called The Cookie Thief (read here by the late, but great, Wayne Dyer)
What a wonderful, terrible, yet undeniable truth to see that we are all connected. Thank you, oldest women in the world, for teaching us that we can always see the artist, teacher, and human in everyone-even and perhaps especially those that we find unpleasant.